CHIȘINĂU, REPUBLIC OF MOLDOVA — It’s 2017 and the “Russian tanks coming to Moldova” are still not here. Russia was long used as a scarecrow to convince EU higher-ups to continue their funding programs in the small ex-Soviet country, but the Europeans are no longer impressed.
The president of the European People’s Party, Joseph Daul, and the president of The Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe Party, Hans van Baalen, have signed a common letter asking EU institutions to stop pouring money into the Republic of Moldova, citing corruption and poor management on the part of the Moldovan government as defining factors. “Instead of seeking to advance the country and its people along the road to prosperity, the Democratic Party (PDM), together with the Socialists (PSRM), spearheaded by their leader Plahotniuc, have chosen to strengthen autocracy”, says a press release published by the EU leaders.
It wouldn’t be the first time the EU, along with other international institutions such as the IMF and the World Bank, have freezed financial aid for Moldova. Most recently, all three organizations made the decision to stop the funding after Moldova’s banking scandal, when almost $1 billion (1/8th of the GDP) vanished from three banks. The banks were closed and some people were jailed, but the money has yet to be recovered.
This time, the EU might have another good reason to stop the money transfers. The European Court of Auditors published an assessment last year criticizing the European Commission who, according to them, have done little in the way of ensuring the money was well-spent. At the same time, Moldovans have elected pro-Russian president Igor Dodon while surveys show that trust in the EU has continued to plummet.
So how did Moldova, once called a “success story” by EU bureaucrats, fall so low? The answer may lay with the unofficial leader of the country, oligarch Vladimir Plahotniuc, also commonly referred to as Mr. P or Plaha (a Russian word for the wooden block used for executions). His party, the Democratic Party of Moldova (PDM), has gone from having 19 seats in parliament to 41 (out of 101), by incorporating MPs from opposition parties or straight up swallowing other smaller parties. Plahotniuc tried to become prime-minister himself, but decided to prop one of his close associates in the position following massive protests in the capital. A lot of these protests have helped elect a pro-Russian president and, if surveys are to be trusted, will lead to a pro-Russian parliament this autumn.
EU taxes are helping seem to have missed their goal in Moldova. The small country has received €782 million in bilateral aid through the Eastern Partnership program alone (2007-2015). Furthermore, the EU was crucial in the talks to form democratic coalitions ever since the Communist Party (PCRM) was removed from power. Because of that, Plahotniuc and his party are closely associated with the image of the EU. But in a fear of the Russian propaganda machine winning in eastern Europe, the EU has been more than happy to look the other way. Now, both the Moldovan people and the European officials reap the benefits.
There are anti-corruption protests every other week in Moldova. But that doesn’t mean that people are embracing the EU. Tired of the “scary Russia” narrative, they are looking inwards for political stability. Or as Moldovan journalist Vladimir Solovyov puts it: “both the Americans and Plahotniuc’s officials frighten people with Russian tanks. But nobody in Moldova is afraid of Russian tanks.” It’s high time for the West to understand that as well.